Vance sat on the floor with his wife’s lifeless body in his arms as the blood
of their wounds mingled on the floor below them. Despite the seven soldiers who
lay dying on the floor around him, their blood still dripping from his sword,
he knew his reign over the kingdom had ended. The stomach wound he had received
when the soldiers stormed the bedchamber would guarantee him a long and painful
death. And there would be more soldiers coming soon whose intent would be to
give him a much quicker demise. With his wife murdered and his son most likely
dead as well, he swore he would bring down as many of the assassins as he could
before they had the satisfaction of killing him.
looked up to see a lone soldier cautiously enter the room and pause to assess
the results of the initial attack. The soldier turned back to the doorway and
nodded to someone, then two more soldiers entered the
room, followed by a hooded and cloaked female. They stopped in the doorway, and
she removed her hood.
King Vance said as he wiped tears and sweat from his face with his bloodied
sleeve. “I wondered how many of your soldiers I’d have to kill before you
showed your face. Come a little closer." His voice dripped with enraged
sarcasm. “Let’s discuss this... little misunderstanding we’re having.”
smiled. “Now, now, cousin. Don’t be angry with me. You and your father were the
ones who thought it was wise to mingle our royal blood with that of those
intolerable elves.” She knelt down, keeping her distance. “I told you there
would be consequences. I’m merely trying to minimize the damage you’ve done to
our people’s trust in their king and queen.”
Vance let his wife's body slide gently from his lap to the floor. “You
heartless, murdering wench.” He forced the words through his clenched teeth as
he drew his sword and staggered to his feet. “You’ve undermined our relations
with neighboring kingdoms for years. It was a mistake for you to come out of
hiding before I was dead. At least I can die with the knowledge that the
murderer of my family has been brought to justice.”
advanced toward the approaching soldiers but stopped when flaring pain radiated
from both sides of his body. He looked down to see blood seeping from the
wounds as two short blades withdrew slowly from his lower torso. He turned to see his assassin, a
thin boyish female, moving away from behind him. The pain faded, and his world
King Logan watched the young woman enter the throne room. Although
clearly a gnome, her height made her appear almost elven. Her straight
brownish-red hair fell down the full course of her back, hiding her round ears
and adding to the illusion that she was not a gnome. She wore a woman’s blouse
with creases in the material, yet it appeared to be newly created. No tunic or
other garment overlay the blouse, and brown leather riding pants covered her
legs instead of a skirt or dress. It might be assumed that she wore the pants
because she had just traveled a long distance, but King Logan could tell from
her walk that she was more comfortable in pants than she would have been in a
dress. She had to be nervous entering the castle for the first time, but her
straight back, focused eyes and long stride showed only confidence.
was rare that any man not of noble blood was able to read and write, and almost
unheard of that a woman would be able to do so—even rarer for her to be a
scholar. But Talla was the daughter of Tearjon—his only daughter and the
youngest of his offspring. She was everything Logan would have expected.
had earned the reputation as the greatest historian in the kingdom, save
possibly her father. Her four brothers had all found a place in neighboring—and
thankfully allied—kingdoms as court historians, the title that Tearjon had held
in King Logan’s court until the historian’s death only a month earlier.
Logan grinned as Talla bowed her head and dropped to one knee—a man’s approach
to the throne, not a woman’s. No doubt taught to her by her father who was
perhaps the least educated person on court protocol that Logan had ever met.
historian’s ignorance of the workings of the court might have insulted another
king, but Logan knew that Tearjon respected the ruler even if he did not
respect the rules that governed his court. History was his one true love, and
recording it was the most important thing to him. Soldiers protected the
kingdom and its king, but a historian protected the king’s legacy. Tearjon was
an honest and brave man. And he was a friend. Logan had no doubt that the young
woman before him would be very much like her father. Her actions as she entered
the room were a testament to her teacher.
Logan said as he rose from his throne. “This isn’t the proper place to welcome
the daughter of an old friend.” He placed a hand on her shoulder as she stood.
“Let’s go to the kitchen to sit and talk of old times. Maybe later we can
discuss your duties as my new historian.”
smiled and followed the king.
Talla sat across the small
kitchen table from King Logan, watching as he tore pieces of bread from a fresh
loaf and ate them with cuttings of cheese. All around them the servants busied
themselves with preparing dinner, actively avoiding eye contact in an attempt
to remain invisible. They were no doubt uncomfortable with the King’s presence.
Talla gathered from their discomfort that such a visit was uncommon.
historian knew she should also be more anxious in the presence of her king.
However, even though she had only seen King Logan on rare, brief occasions
since she was a very young child, her father’s stories about the king made her
feel as though she knew him as well as she did any member of her family. So just as she would in the presence of her father or one of
her uncles, she sat quietly and listened to the king as he spun his memories
into fascinating tales, occasionally taking a small bite of cheese and bread with
him to be polite.
“I was only
eight years old when Shellina had my parents killed and took the throne from my
father,” King Logan said as he broke off another piece of bread. “Servants from
the castle had noticed her guards heading to my parents’ chamber and managed to
get me out of the castle…”
he trees surrounding the small
Gnomish cottage turned shades of gray as the rainbow of pastel colors left the
sunset for night. Tearjon looked down on the expectant faces of his four sons
sitting on the floor before him while he held young Talla in his arms. She was
really too young for the lessons, but he knew it would be impossible to have
all his sons in one room and keep her away for very long. Her curiosity was as
great as any wizened sorcerer he had ever known.
begin tonight's lesson,” he said. “Listen closely and remember all of my words.
My father told me these stories, and his father taught him. Anything you fail
to remember may never again be told.”
boys shifted and watched him intently. Marthin and Rhian positioned pillows
under themselves and readied for a long lesson. Steaph watched his older
brothers a moment before focusing on his father again. Carst, the youngest,
simply watched his father with the look of a young deer caught off guard. Tearjon
was pleased that he had their attention.
history of our world begins in a time when events were recorded by crude
drawings on cave walls—a time before gnomes and elves walked the earth. An
incredible war led by two very powerful wizards took place on these very lands.
The fighting went on for many years, and the magic used was so powerful that
both wizards transformed into massive dragons—the magic energies mutating them
as it flowed through their bodies. In the course of battle, each created
warriors and creatures in hopes of getting an advantage over the other. From
those creations came the gnomes and elves, as well as wonderful beasts like the
unicorn and the deer. Also came the Branchers and the—"
knock on the front door interrupted Tearjon’s story. His wife Lena peeked through a small window then moved quickly from
the kitchen to open the door. Two castle maids entered with a young boy between
them. Tearjon recognized Prince Logan immediately. If the hour of their
unexpected visit hadn’t been enough to let Tearjon know that something was
wrong, it could easily be deduced from the worried looks on the ladies' faces
and the tear-reddened eyes of the boy.
a forced smile, Tearjon leaned back his head and sniffed as he set Talla onto
the floor. “I guess we started our lessons too late. Unless my nose deceives me,
dinner’s ready. We'll start earlier next time.”
sons jumped up and ran into the kitchen to see what their mother had prepared
for dinner. As Tearjon stood to address the situation at the door, he felt a
tug at the base of his shirt.
we finish the story after dinner?” Talla asked eagerly.
answered with another forced smile in an effort to hide his apprehension.
"Maybe tomorrow night."
short time later, Tearjon hid behind the first large tree he could reach. The
woods swarmed with soldiers, so hiding was difficult. Prince Logan, little more
than half the historian's height, stood clinging to Tearjon. When he looked
down at the boy, Tearjon realized the young prince was not clinging, but
stables," Logan whispered. "We should be able to breach the wall from
was impressed. This child was years from being a man, yet even with all that
had just happened to him, he was not only calm but had also located an escape
route. Despite what some said, nobility ran deep in the boy. Tearjon followed
as Logan led him behind carts and boxes to cover their movements.
they reached the stables, Logan pointed to a small wagon. "Wait
here," he said as he began to climb the rough stone walls.
watched in amazement. Logan had long ago demonstrated a remarkable ability to
climb, but that did not keep Tearjon from admiring the boy's progress up the
wall. Logan moved quietly into the window above the stable doors and
disappeared. Several minutes passed, then one of the large stable doors opened
slightly. Logan's little face looked out and he motioned for Tearjon to join
he ran to the boy, the historian heard shouts in the distance and thought he
heard someone say that King Vance was dead. Tearjon hoped he had heard wrong, but
he knew in his heart that he had not. He had to see to the safety of this young
just a historian! Tearjon thought as he followed Logan up bundles of hay to
the opening on the other side of the stables. How can I possibly keep him alive until he’s old enough to take back
his throne? The sound of something whistling through the air made him turn in
time to witness a soldier wearing colors loyal
to Shellina dropping into the hay with several arrows embedded in his back.
Tearjon and Logan moved to the edge of the hay and saw Jeiyed, the captain of
the guards, lowering his bow and removing a bag and rope from his shoulder.
“You’ll have to be more careful if you
wish to keep yourselves alive.” Jeiyed moved to the bottom of the stacked hay
and tossed the bag and rope. “You’ll need these. There are several guards like
me who are still loyal to the king, and we can keep you covered until you are
beyond the walls of the kingdom. That’s the best I can do for you right now. I
must see to the safety of the people of the kingdom before I can leave and join
you, King Logan.”
Logan’s eyes widened with a hint of fear
as he heard his new title for the first time.
“We will be with you when you are ready to
return.” Jeiyed turned to put a hand on Tearjon’s shoulder. “I pray you live to
tell the history of the day King Logan returns to his people.”
Escaping the kingdom held many obstacles. The
first was the most obvious and perhaps the most daunting. The mountain Clessa
held the capital city of Felsen nested in a gnome-created opening. Mount Clessa’s
high walls and naturally sharp stones had kept the capital safe for many
hundreds of years. No trees or shrubs grew near the mountaintop. Leaving via
the front gates was obviously not an option, so the sharp rocks of the mountainside
would be their only path out. At least it would also be their cover as the
fugitives worked their way down Clessa’s dangerous
he’d been on his own, Tearjon was sure he would never have made it down the
mountain alive, but the little king was able to navigate the mountain’s dangers
as though the rocks were marked with arrows pointing their way down. Tearjon
was relieved when they finally made it to the cover of the trees at the bottom
of the mountain. From there, the two could move more quickly.
me!” A rough voice sounded from behind them, nearly causing Tearjon’s heart to
sprang in the direction of the voice but quickly found himself thrust in the
air by a wooden staff that had snagged his shirt and held him off the ground.
At its end was a sight that made Tearjon’s skin crawl.
me,” the creature said. “I repay a debt to Jeiyed. I will lead you through the
man holding the staff was gnome—at least he had been at some point in his life.
The chainmail that showed from under his leather clothing marked him as a
fighter, maybe even a soldier at some forgotten time. However, years of
exposure to magic had transformed him. This gnome stood nearly seven feet tall
and had muscles like those of a warhorse. His slotted eyes were like those of a
dragon, and golden fur replaced what should have been skin. At the ends of his
fingers were claws where his fingernails should have been. His staff had numerous
magical marks etched into it, with gold and silver lining the carvings. The
staff was clearly magical, and magic, by nature, transforms people. The longer
someone is exposed to magic, the greater the transformation. Most people had
enough sense to stop using it when they began to change. Tearjon was uncomfortable
around magic and even less comfortable with those who used it.
way.” The man pointed north as he set Logan back on the ground.
considered going back up Mount Clessa and taking his chances. That would
certainly be better than going through the Dark Woods to the north of the
mountain. Small armies had been known to disappear in those woods.
boy and I will take another route,” he said to the creature-gnome. “But we
thank you for your kind offer.” He began to move away but found his movement
blocked by the staff.
will follow me—closely. I promised Jeiyed to repay a debt.” He pointed north
again. “I am Karlus. I will lead you out of the kingdom safely. Please follow
did say please.” Logan shrugged and
took Tearjon’s hand, pulling him north.
“It’s not like we have many options,” Tearjon
said with a smile. The boy was definitely of royal blood. Logan’s strength made
it clear that some day he would return to take back his father’s crown. If only
for the moment, all fear left Tearjon as he followed Logan and Karlus into
Once he finally got past the creature-gnome’s
appearance, Tearjon found himself fascinated by Karlus. Despite the man’s large
size, he moved with the smoothness and reflexes of an elf. Tearjon knew his movements
were not born of magic but were instead the result of years of training. Karlus
must have at some time been a part of an elite guard, and not just any guard—King
Vance’s. Tearjon had spent enough time watching Jeiyed train his soldiers to recognize
the abilities of his favorite students. To Tearjon’s eyes, Karlus’s movements
were nearly as clean as he would have expected Jeiyed’s to be. Perhaps their
chances of safely navigating the Dark Woods were better than he had thought at
then, Karlus froze. His hand moved backward to stop Tearjon and Logan. As he
slowly lowered himself behind a small group of shrubs, Tearjon and Logan
followed his lead and watched.
continued to watch. The three stayed crouched there for several minutes.
Neither Logan nor Tearjon could see what had caught Karlus’s attention, but
they continued to stare into the woods for any sign of the hidden danger.
back slowly,” Karlus whispered.
complied, their gazes darting behind them to Karlus and
then into the woods, trying to see what he had seen. Karlus never looked back.
His eyes continued to look into the woods.
and Logan followed him without question. After moving a small distance from the
shrubs they had hidden behind, Karlus led the two in an arc around the area
where they had been.
vines moved against the wind,” Karlus whispered, answering the unspoken query
on their faces.
he didn’t fully understand the significance of the vines’ movement, Tearjon followed
Karlus nonetheless. Logan stopped for a moment to look back at the vines before
continuing behind Karlus with Tearjon’s prompting.
tall trees that surrounded them at all times seemed endless and made it difficult
to tell how long they had been walking. The massive roots that stretched from
tree to tree slowed their travel, but they were a welcome tradeoff for the
dense shrubs and foliage they would have encountered if not for the roots.
Logan whispered as he grabbed at Karlus’s chainmail. “Those vines. They’re not
moving, but they’re like the ones back there that were.”
looked impressed. “Very good. Same type of vine, but we are in no danger from
these.” Without further explanation, he turned and continued through the woods.
Both Tearjon and Logan looked closely at the vines as they passed them,
wondering what hidden dangers had been in the previous vines that were missing
was getting dark. The woods were heavily shaded by the canopy of branches and
leaves overhead, but the shade was giving way to gray that would soon turn
pitch black without the benefit of the moon.
that I really want to be in these woods any longer than I need to be,” Tearjon
said, “but shouldn’t we be looking for a place to camp for the night?”
was the only answer from Karlus.
continued on for what Tearjon felt sure was much longer than soon. He could barely see Logan and
Karlus or the trees and plants around them when Karlus finally motioned in
front of them.
Here was a large floor made of broken
granite. It was difficult to determine its size in the darkness and from the
vines that almost completely covered it, but Tearjon realized that what looked
like small vine-covered trees surrounding the floor were actually the remains
of a temple. Its pillars and statues were scattered around the structure—some
standing, some fallen.
here tonight. I will watch,” Karlus stated. Logan started to say something in
protest, but a glance and a nod from Tearjon stopped him. Karlus cleared a
large area of floor and built a fire from limbs and vines.
it safe to have a fire with others trying to find us?” Tearjon asked.
trees hide us from those foolish enough to follow into the Dark Woods. We are
safer with the fire than without it.”
answer was both satisfactory and unnerving. The hint that Karlus did not feel
safe in the Dark Woods would not help the historian sleep. He opened the bag
that Jeiyed had provided and found it filled with dried food, bread and cheese.
After a rationed meal and water provided by Karlus, Logan and Tearjon quickly
fell into an exhausted sleep.
Their slumber didn't last long. Tearjon had
no idea how long he had been asleep when he was awakened by noises around the
camp. The loud rustling and scraping sounds made it seem that the woods were
“Good, you’re awake. Light these.” Karlus
tossed two torches in Tearjon’s direction.
Without question, Tearjon moved quickly to
the fire and lit the torches, noticing that Logan was also waking. As the boy
stood up, he located a long fairly-straight stick that made a good staff. He
quickly removed any small branches from the staff and tested it. It was a
little heavy, but it was from the gray trees that filled most of the Dark Woods
and appeared to be quite strong. Testing the staff for its center weight, he
held it as Jeiyed had taught him and readied for battle. Tearjon, holding two
lit torches, moved close to Logan. They waited to see what was approaching from
the surrounding darkness. It was a short wait.
didn't understand the reference. He did, however, see shadows moving toward the
light. They appeared to be men—gnomes by their height—but their movement was
slow and awkward. The occasional glint of light from the shadows indicated that
at least some of them were carrying metal weapons. Finally, the light of the
fire revealed their attackers and explained why Karlus’s voice had been filled
with such alarm when he said their name.
had heard stories of undead in the Dark Woods and near ancient ruins. He’d never
heard them called mimics
before, but the term made sense. These creatures were not truly undead but rather
animated dead—animated by the magic-soaked plants that had killed their hosts'
his grandfather had once told him a story about them that gave him an idea.
Tearjon sat with his mother, father, older brother and his visiting
grandfather at the dinner table. Grandfather always filled his stories with
more adventure and danger than those his father told, and the story that he
told at dinner that night was no exception.
“And there stood Captain Lockrum
surrounded by undead!”
“Undead?” Tearjon repeated. “But ghosts
and undead aren’t real. Are they?” His question was infused with hopefulness.
“I believe that ghosts do exist, but I know the undead do. I’ve seen them with
my own eyes.” Grandfather validated the statement with a stern look and a nod.
“But don’t let the name fool you. These creatures are very much alive and very
statement caught young Tearjon like a fish at the end of a gig. Grandfather,
seeing the intensity of the boy’s stare, managed to hold back a grin and turn
it into an even more serious face.
see, the dead are brought to life by the very plants that kill them. You’ve
certainly seen how magic distorts men and animals.” Tearjon answered his
grandfather with a quick nod. “Well, magic affects plants just as strongly. And
where men have their souls to guide their judgment, plants have none. When a
plant is changed by magic, it’s always empty, always evil.”
leaned nearer to Tearjon.
a source of magic is strong enough, sometimes the plants around it are
transformed from plants to creatures. These creatures, being devoid of a soul,
seek out the souls of animals and men. They sit quietly and wait for their
prey, often blending so well into their surroundings that the plants are nearly
invisible. But because they feed off magic, they’re unable to move very far
from the magic that created them. So they wait.”
for what?” Tearjon asked, his eyes wide.
an unsuspecting man or animal gets within the grasp of the plant’s vines, they
reach out and kill their prey. These hollow, evil plants then grow their vines
into the kill. They soak up as much of the soul of the victim as they can
before it dies with the body. However, this newly formed creature—a merger of
plant and animal—acquires only a fraction of the soul it destroys, usually just
enough to animate its new body. On rare occasions, they can make a sound or two
but never any more than that. In a desire to be what they can’t be, these ‘undead’
wander woods and ruins in search of more souls to add to their incomplete
sat back, took a breath and repositioned himself before resuming his original
anyway, there was Captain Lockrum, surrounded by the undead. His men had all
fallen into some unknown sleep from which they would not awaken. It was up to
him to save his men and himself. Then, like the sun breaking through the
darkness at sunrise, the answer came to him.”
held out his cupped hand as though he were holding a small ball. He moved his
face close to his hand and admired it as though it held a precious jewel.
stone he’d found at the temple—these creatures were following it! He peered
closer at the stone and, sure enough, there were very small etchings carved
into it. It was a magical stone! And he knew there was only one thing to do.
Even though it was immensely valuable and it hurt him to do so, the stone had
to be destroyed.”
moved his hand back and over his head, then he swung it forward.
his magical sword, for it takes magic—and sometimes luck—to destroy magic, he
smashed the stone. As the blade entered the stone, it let loose a blinding
light.” He placed his hand before his eyes as if to shield them. “When the
captain’s vision returned, he saw the undead dropping to the ground. You see, the
magic of the stone was their food, and without it they couldn’t sustain the
bodies. The vines left the bodies they’d occupied and retreated.”
about Captain Lockrum’s men?” Tearjon was a sponge absorbing anything his
grandfather was willing to spill. “What happened to them?”
now, that’s a whole ‘nother story. You see, there was Captain Lockrum, his men
peaceful but in grave danger...”
readied his staff to repel the mimics that were entering the camp. Just as
he started to take his first swing, he saw Logan lunging past him into the approaching
creatures. The boy wielded his makeshift branch-staff with surprising skill for
one so young. His attacks were only enough to knock the creatures down and hold
them back, but the techniques he used were very familiar. Jeiyed would have
been proud to see the boy in combat. Karlus added his staff to the fight with
more permanent results than Logan’s.
was mortified to see the young king fighting face-to-face with the undead, but
he tore his attention from the battle and scanned the surrounding area. At
first he saw nothing but black and the shadows cast into it by their campfire,
then he noticed something. Lying on the ground a little off the broken marble
floor where they camped was a clear stone covered in vines, and it appeared to
glow as the light of the campfire hit it. Some of the undead were near it, but
there was an open path between him and the stone. He ran to it and grabbed it.
break this!” Tearjon shouted as he spun around and threw the stone, hoping the
gnome-creature was as skilled as he believed him to be. Vines were now reaching
around Tearjon’s neck, arms and legs, and he could feel himself getting weaker.
Karlus turned to see the clear stone
flying toward his face. Instinct and training moved his staff before he could
think, and the stone shattered in a blinding flash of light as the magical
staff slammed through it. He staggered a little and strained to see.
later, Karlus and Logan found themselves surrounded by fallen bodies, along
with Tearjon on his hands and knees. The vines were withdrawing into the dark.
thinking, historian,” Karlus said, a glimmer of concern in his eyes as Tearjon
struggled to his feet.
you.” Tearjon coughed. “But I can’t take the credit. It was a lesson my
grandfather taught me.”
The remainder of the night passed
uneventfully. Much to their surprise, Tearjon and Logan were able to sleep again
despite the earlier excitement. Tearjon woke to a late-morning sun and the
realization that Karlus had allowed him to sleep well past sunrise.
morning,” Karlus said as he produced bread and cheese. “You should eat. It may
be a while before you can stop and rest again.”
was already awake and eating, but his sunken eyes and slow movement told
Tearjon that he had not been awake for long. The bodies of the mimics were
gone. Tearjon didn’t know if Karlus had removed them or if they had simply disappeared
during the night, and he was not interested enough to ask. As he ate his
breakfast, Tearjon got a better look at their surroundings. At night he had not realized where they were, but in
the daylight he could see that they had reached the edge of the Dark Woods. In
the distance, the woods thinned and the ground rose into an endless run of
turned to Karlus. “There aren’t many trees ahead. It’ll be difficult for us to
hide once we leave these woods. Where do we go from here?”
circle the outer rim of the woods and head back home,” Karlus
we head southeast for the Lower Ruins,” a voice said from behind them.
Tearjon spun around. The name no longer fit the mature elf standing before him
as it had the child from his memories. “V'rellis Nightwood, is that you? What
magic has brought you here?”
magic,” the elf replied. “His men rode through the night to call me to your
aid. I made my way here as quickly as I could. You both look well. Are you
ready to travel?”